Veterans with multiple brain injuries are at high risk for suicidal thoughts
A growing body of evidence indicates that traumatic brain injuries significantly increase a person’s risk of attempting suicide, and a new study indicates that veterans are particularly in danger.
The findings of the Veterans Affair study, published in the journal Psychological Services, finds that veterans who served post-9-11 who have experienced repeated brain injuries are at a much greater risk of considering suicide compared to those with a single brain injury or no record of brain injury
The findings suggest that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experienced multiple traumatic brain injuries were approximately twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts within the past week compared to other veterans.
“Suicide is a major concern with veterans,” explains lead researcher Dr. Robert Shura. “Right now, the prime point of intervention is at the level of thinking about suicide. Therefore, identifying characteristics of veterans who are more likely to think about suicide is a high priority.”
Dr. Shura is a neuropsychologist at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in North Carolina.
The new findings are the result of interviews with more than 800 veterans who were placed in combat roles during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the interviews covered a variety of topics, the researchers primarily focused on the link between recent suicidal thoughts and TBI.
Approximately half of the veterans in the study reported experiencing at least one TBI during their service.
Among those with multiple brain injuries, approximately 20% reported recent suicidal ideation, compared to 11% of those with one brain injury and 9% of those with no history of TBI.
The interviews also revealed that those with repeated TBIs also experienced significantly poorer sleep quality and higher rates of depression. Among those with at least one TBI, approximately 18% met the criteria for major depressive disorder (MDD).
While the findings provide a clear sign that better interventions and screening methods are needed for veterans with a history of repeated TBI, Shura stresses “we need to be careful not to oversimply things.”
“There are folks with a single TBI in the past who have had suicidal ideation, and there are those with many TBIs who have not.”
Another interesting finding of the study was that PTSD, another common mental health issue among members of the military who have experienced TBI, was not consistently linked to suicidal ideation.
“There’s research suggesting a relationship between PTSD and suicidal ideation,” Shura observes. “Our results are only one piece of a complex puzzle and should not be taken to mean that veterans suffering PTSD do not have suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation is not a defining symptom for PTSD, but it certainly is for major depressive disorder. Depression was consistently related to suicidal ideation in our sample, due to how we defined the diagnosis. A more interesting and clinically relevant result is that poor sleep quality was related to recent suicidal ideation. Providers probably need to pay more attention to returning veterans who continue to have sleep issues after re-adjustment from deployment.”